The Heat Continues

After a June and 30 Days Wild which was extremely hot and the met office now tells us was the driest on record we have now hit July and things are not changing. I did see some cloud on Sunday, but all it seemed to do was increase the humidity.

The heat is making it difficult to work, despite this on Sunday five volunteers turned out and we pulled Himalayan balsam for an hour and a half, a remarkable effort. On Monday I saw removing ragwort from the areas I plan to mow on the shore of Ibsley Water.

All this heat continues to be very good for insects, the moth catch overnight on Sunday/Monday was the highest I have ever had at Blashford, one trap caught 96 species! This included a lot of micro moths, many of these are quite spectacular looking, but it is hard to appreciate what they really look like as they are so small.

Mompha propinquella

Mompha propinquella

The one above is actually quiet common and I see it fairly regularly. I did catch a few new species for the reserve including a chalk grassland species that feeds on marjoram, a plant which does grow in the gravel near the building, so perhaps it was a local rather than a wanderer.

Acompsia schmidtiellus

Acompsia schmidtiellus a species that feeds on marjoram.

There are lots of butterflies and dragonflies around the reserve. Silver-washed fritillary are having a good year and gatekeeper are now emerging as are the summer broods of small copper and brown argus.

gatekeeper

gatekeeper

Brown hawker and southern hawker dragonflies are both already flying in some numbers, although common darter are still quiet few.

southern hawker

southern hawker

The picture above was my best of a few attempts at getting a flight shot over the Centre pond at Sunday lunchtime. At the same time I saw a large red damselfly that had fallen into the pond and been preyed upon by a water boatman.

water boatman with large red damselfly prey

water boatman with large red damselfly prey

When you are an insect there are many ways to die more or less everything is out to get you! There are predators and more gruesomely parasites almost everywhere. I found a parasitic wasp hunting for a beetle larva in which to lay its egg.

Ichneumonid wasp Ephilates manifestator

Ephilates manifestator probing for beetle larvae

The needle-like ovipositor can be pushed deep into the wood, when not in use it is protected by a sheath, in the picture you can see the ovipositor in use probing almost vertically downward.

The dry weather is stressing plants and some smaller trees are losing their leaves already. Most of the grass is now brown and many species rapidly going to seed. There are still flowers out there though and one such is creeping cinquefoil.

creeping cinquefoil

creeping cinquefoil

 

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30 Days Wild – Day 12 – The Power of a Flower

Tuesday at Blashford is volunteer day, or at least one of them, we also have a regular work party on a Thursday as well, today we were balsam pulling. The balsam in question is Himalayan balsam, a garden plant that escaped into the countryside and particularly likes growing along river and stream banks, “riparian habitats” as they are known. It is an extraordinary plant, growing to two or three metres tall in a matter of a few weeks,outgrowing all native plants that live in similar places. It also has explosive seed pods which can throw the seeds a metre or more when they pop. Being a non-native it has escaped its natural disease and insect controls and grows almost without check, which is why it has become a problem.

before

a disappointingly large stand of balsam

We have been removing this plant by pulling them up for many years now and have made good progress on the upper parts of the Dockens Water, where there are very few plants now. Clearly though, we failed to find quiet a few plants last year for there to be quite such a dense stand as this. Flooding carries the seed along and will also concentrate it where the seed gets deposited. We had a lot of plants to pull up, but we did pull them up and this is what it looked like a short while later.

after

after balsam pulling

What is very clear is that once the balsam is gone there is very little other vegetation, showing how it out competes other species.

Himalayan balsam has very nectar rich flowers, leading some to claim it is “Good for bees”, bees and other insects will take nectar from it, but I think the case for it being “good for bees” is very questionable. When it flowers it is very popular, but before this it shades out all the other flowering plants that would providing nectar, so across the season it probably provides no more than would be there anyway, it makes the habitat one of feast or famine cutting off food sources earlier in the season.

Flowers are immensely rich sources of food for lots of creatures, perhaps especially insects, but I have watch deer carefully picking off flowers and leaving the rest of the plant. The flower has the protein-rich pollen and the sugar-rich nectar, in short the stuff needed to make animals and keep them running. The flowers are not giving this largess, they are trying to get their pollen transferred to another flower to allow seed formation and make new plants. As the year progresses different flowers become the main attraction for lots of insects. Just now hemlock water dropwort is very attractive, but a new draw is appearing in the form of bramble flowers.

bramble flowers

bramble flowers

We easily notice the larger species such as butterflies, but look closer and you will see lots of tiny insects.

bramble flower with pollen beetles

A bramble flower with several small beetles

I think the beetles in the picture are pollen beetles, but I am not certain.

Closely related to brambles, the roses are at their peak now, the similarity in flower form between the bramble and this dog rose are clear even if the rose is the showier.

dog rose

dog rose

I was pleased to receive reports of four little ringed plover chicks seen today from Tern hide, the first proof of any hatching so far this year. It was also good to see the common tern arriving at the rafts on Ivy Lake carrying small fish to feed newly hatched chicks.

My moth trap highlight today was a lobster moth caught at home, not a species I see very often and I still have to find the extraordinary caterpillar which is the source of the moth’s name.

lobster moth

lobster moth

To refer back to my earlier comments about the food value of flowers, I noticed the mullein moth caterpillar in my garden has eaten most of the flowers off the figwort plant, it has eaten all the best bits first!

mullein moth on figwort

mullein moth on figwort

What’s in My Meadow Today?

I know it is not a plant that belongs in a meadow in southern England, but I like bloody crane’s-bill, so I have it in the meadow, where it grows and seeds quite well.

bloody cranesbill

bloody crane’s-bill flower

Something else that does not really belong are the anthills, this is not because ants are not native here, but you do not usually get anthills in meadows. This is because a meadow is really a field that is grown to produce a crop of grass, so the act of cutting the field would knock down the anthills before they became large. I cut the grass around the anthills taking care to leave them to get bigger year by year as I rather like them. This maybe because I spent many years working at Farlington Marshes where the masses of anthills are a significant feature of the reserve.

anthill

One of the anthills being extended by the ants.

 

Still Wild After all These Days

Summer moves on, at Blashford on Sunday I saw my first gatekeeper of the year, oddly a little later than in some years, most other butterflies have been merging a little earlier than usual, so I am not sure why they alone are later.

gatekeeper

The first gatekeeper at the year

It was also the first day I had seen brown hawker dragonfly, although I would guess they have been flying for a couple of days. The first common tern chicks also flew, even if a little tentatively, hopefully we will see over seventy fledge this year. Another first for the year was Essex skipper, they at every like small skipper, but tend to fly a couple of weeks later.

Essex skipper on yellow rattle

Essex skipper on yellow rattle

At least I think it is an Essex skipper!

I had another go at getting a flight shot of a hoverfly, a very frustrating thing to try, this was my best attempt.

hoverfly

hoverfly

I went on a walk down the Dockens Water to check where we will need to go Himalayan balsam pulling and if we have missed any plants. I found a few, but also a number of native marshland plants.

marsh bedstraw

marsh bedstraw

water forget-me-not

water forget-me-not

30 Days Wild – Day 20: Over Heated

Tuesday is one of our volunteer days at Blashford, but it was not a day for heavy work in the sun. Luckily we needed to do a second sweep along the Dockens Water to remove Himalayan balsam plants that had either not germinated last time, or that we had missed. We found only about a couple of hundred plants, testament to the work we have done reducing it over the years. Along the way we saw a few common frog and good numbers of beautiful demoiselle.

beautiful demoiselle male

beautiful demoiselle (male)

I retreated into the office in the afternoon, where at least it was a little cooler, until it was time to lock up.

There was a little excitement at locking up time as I found a person paddling an inflatable boat on Ivy Lake. We know the damage this can do, some years ago two canoeists were found on the lake and this resulted in many of the tern chick jumping off the rafts in panic and several were lost. Luckily the chicks are about a week too small to jump off so they remained, although the adults were less than happy. It turned out the boatman was an angler, although not fishing.  He had a large bucket of bait and was looking for fish. It is a curious thing that anglers are very difficult to persuade that there is anything wrong with trespassing like this, they know that the water is not fished and private. When asked it turned out the boat had not been cleaned before use and he did not know where it had been last time out. The danger to inland waters and especially fisheries, of disease and alien species being moved about on wet gear seemed to have passed him by entirely. Anglers even had a euphemism for illegal entry and fish theft, they know it as “guesting” and it seems to be an accepted part of the “sport”. Small wonder that invasive aliens species and fish diseases get so easily moved around.

Once it cooled down a bit in the evening we went out for a walk on the edge of the New Forest. In some of the dried out puddles I came across a lot of coral necklace, a small plant typical of these locations and a bit of a New Forest speciality.

coral necklace

coral necklace

The main reason for the visit was to see silver-studded blue butterflies and I was not disappointed.

silver-studded blue

silver-studded blue, settling down to roost for the night.

Along the way we also found a small heath and a freshly emerged common emerald damselfly, I am not sure I have seen one at this stage before and it was a very different colour from the mature adult.

common emerald recently emerged

common emerald

The usually wet areas are very dry, so some species usually growing in wet bog are now high and dry, one example of this was a group of oblong-leaved sundew plants growing by the dry path.

oblong-leaved sundew

oblong-leaved sundew

Sundews are carnivorous plants catching insects on the sticky globules on the leaves.

Brilliant Volunteers

As I have noted many times on this blog, Blashford Lakes would not be anything like as good a site without the invaluable input from our great volunteer team. Our volunteers help out with a range of tasks and do some projects in their entirety.

Over the last week we have had volunteer educators helping with school groups river dipping in the rain, reptile and butterfly surveyors, office administration and our Tuesday and Thursday working parties.

The rarest habitat at Blashford Lakes is the Lichen Heath, perhaps because of its industrial origin it is not actually designated, but it is home to many nationally rare species which form an assemblage which needs looking after.

lichens

Lichen Heath close-up

The importance of the area rests on it having very low nutrients, but over time nutrients fall from the sky and collect in the upper layers of the soil as mosses, lichens and small plants die. The obvious conclusion is that it will slowly disappear and turn into nutrient poor acid grassland. So how to keep some areas to true Lichen Heath? The answer is probably to strip off the surface layer and get down to the bare sandy surface and let it colonise once more. This seems very drastic and it feels wrong to be stripping off what is still a diverse sward with lots of interesting species. We started doing this in a small way on Tuesday, doing six small trial plots which we can monitor, if it looks a good technique we can extend it more widely in the years to come.

Lichen heath before

Lichen heath before surface stripping

Lichen heath after

Lichen heath after surface stripping

We chose sites where there were small bramble or birch trees that needed removing anyway and piled up the material on the northern side of the scraped area to provide some variation in the surface topography and potentially warm nesting sites for the many species of bees, ants, wasps etc. that call the heath home.

The rain this last week is what allowed us to work on the heath as it meant the lichens absorbed water and so could be walked on gently, in dry conditions they would just crumble to dust under foot, which is why we ask visitors not to walk on it. Even in wet conditions it is intolerant to trampling so we do as little as possible out there. So it was a treat whilst we were there to see some of the special species that grow on the heath including the two rare bird’s-foot trefoils.

hairy bird's foot

Hairy bird’s-foot trefoil

 

slender bird's foot

slender bird’s-foot trefoil

On Thursday the volunteers were back on the task of clearing Himalayan balsam and pink purslane from along the Dockens Water. These two invasive alien species can muscle out native species, but can be controlled by pulling them up to prevent seeding. After several years of doing this we have made great progress and balsam is now no more than occasional where once it was the dominant plant. Along the way when doing such tasks we come across other things of interest, one such find was a mating pair of lime hawk-moth.

lime hawk pair mating

Lime-hawk moth pair

Some discoveries though are less welcome and one such was an American skunk cabbage plant, the first I have ever heard of along the Dockens Water. This plant has been a big problem in wetland sites across the New Forest and the subject of an eradication program, so finding it here is a worry. I suspect that somewhere up stream someone has it planted around their pond and the seeds are escaping to grow in the wild.

skunk cabbage

skunk cabbage, a young plant without the huge leaves and yellow flower that attracts water-gardeners.

Our last chance find was made by Geoff, one of our most regular volunteers who photographed this crab spider which had ambushed a bee visiting a daisy flower.

spider

Crab spider with bumble-bee prey on ox-eye daisy.

I will endeavour to do a wildlife update for the week later, I know we have received a number of fabulous photographs from visitors.

 

Progress Against an Invader

Thursday at Blashford is volunteer day and we had a good turn out of fourteen for our first Himalayan balsam pull of the year. After many years of pulling this plant we have very significantly reduced the population and it is nowhere the dominant plant. The advantage of doing the first sweep early in the season is that we remove a significant number of plants but also get an idea of where the main problem areas are and so where to concentrate on our later visit. Pleasingly we found no more than a couple of hundred plants on about half the length of the stream, enough to suggest that there is still a seed source upstream  somewhere but not so many that it is having a serious impact on native wildlife.

The common terns are finally taking some interest in the rafts on Ivy Lake, although they are still not really taking control of any in numbers sufficient to deter the black-headed gulls. I tried putting out another raft during the afternoon in the hope that a new one might tempt them in. The gulls often just loaf around on the rafts, but have the annoying habit of bringing reeds and sticks and leaving them scattered  over the surface. I suspect they are mostly young adults, as the older birds started nesting a couple of weeks ago, a few may eventually build a proper nest, but in the meantime their practice efforts are putting off the terns.

Generally things were quite across the reserve, most of the birds are now nesting or getting ready to do so. Our visitor form North America, the Bonaparte’s gull is still to be seen, although it does not now attract more than the occasional admirer. I did manage to get a slightly better picture of it, which does show a couple of the differences from black-headed gull. You can see the slightly smaller size and overall thinner, more “pointed” look. Now that it is getting a summer plumage hood you can also see that this is blacker than that of black-headed gull, which is actually chocolate brown.

Bonaparte's gull

Bonaparte’s gull (right)

A very noticeable feature of the past week has been the huge increase in the numbers of damselflies around the reserve. Common blue and azure damselflies are now out in numbers, but the large red damselfly, typically the commonest spring species is very hard to find, perhaps due to the very poor April weather last year.

 

 

From Around the World to Blashford (unfortunately!)

It is the time of year when reserve officer’s thoughts turn to invasive plants, yes we can be a bit boring like that! Anyway after weeks of building tern rafts today the volunteers had a walk along the Dockens Water to look for Himalayan balsam. This plant used to dominate long stretches of the stream shading out other species but several years of pulling it up is showing real dividends, it is not gone, but for long stretches there is little or none to be found now. The seed are only viable for two or three years so pulling it up before it flowers for this time should have seen it gone, but a few always seem to hide away and get missed, so it never quiet disappears.

Although the balsam has got much rarer it is noticeable that we are seeing more of another invasive alien plant, the pink purslane, this time hailing from North America. Hopefully it will not become as much of a problem as the balsam, but we are pulling it up, just in case it has plans for a take over!

pink purslane

pink purslane

We came across a few other plants that do not belong, highlighting that garden plants are getting thrown out and establishing themselves all the time and, probably some of them will become invasive in time. One of the new ones today was star of Bethlehem, I doubt this will become a problem, but you never know and every garden escape is growing where a native plant could have been, so in a small way they all impact upon out native flora.

 

There should have been a picture of star of Bethlehem here , but it would not load!

Of course alien plants do not just impact upon other plants, they also reduce the native plants available for insects and other species to feed upon. Plants support lots of other wildlife, often specific to single species, native plants support a native fauna. By contrast alien plants tend to support a range of species that live in that plant’s native range and usually do not occur here. Some alien species will support some of our native fauna, but usually not much, which is why they do so well, there is not much eating them!

The warm sunshine today did bring out quite a few insect, I actually saw two species of dragonflies for the first time this year, which just shows how slow the season has been so far. The species were broad-bodied chaser and downy emerald. I did not get pictures of either of them though, but I did get one of a snail-killing fly,

snail killer

snail-killing fly

and a weevil.

weevil

weevil

Hobby Display Team

A quick look out of the Tern hide first thing revealed that yesterday’s avocet was still present as were 2 greenshank and 2 dunlin. But as I was busy elsewhere today I could not linger, hopefully they would still be there at lunchtime.

Ed has been away this week so the first Sunday of the month volunteer task fell to me to lead. It has been a while since I have done one and there were a few new faces since my last foray with the team. Six of us set out to tackle some more Himalayan balsam, carrying on from where we left off on Thursday with the weekday volunteers. We ended up spending the whole two hours in the alder carr area where we found quite a lot of plants. Although they are still small it is easier to see them than it will be when the nettles get really tall later in the season. It was not all plants though, we found a starling’s nest in an old woodpecker hole and several common frog, the one below was caught on camera by Natasha.

a frog we came across as we were balsam pulling

a frog we came across as we were balsam pulling

After topping up the pond with the rainwater collected thanks to last night’s rain I set off for a look at the northern part of the reserve. Looking from the Tern hide I saw the avocet again as well as a sanderling, unlike last weeks breeding plumage bird this one was still looking very wintery. They was also a peregrine, several swift and 2 hobby. I then headed off to the Goosander and Lapwing hides.

It was a good while since I was up there and on the way I looked out for some of the orchids that grow in the old silt pond. I quickly found a good few twayblade, not in flower yet but actually not far off.

twayblade

twayblade

In an area that we have been cutting for some years to see what would come up I found a good few southern marsh orchids.

southern marsh orchid

southern marsh orchid

And a few with spotted leaves that were probably common spotted orchid.

common spotted orchid

common spotted orchid

Unfortunately many were already quite nibbled by deer and they may yet ensure that none of them get to flower. Deer are a particular and growing problem in this part of the reserve where  a lot of fallow lay up in the daytime and feed at night, they are having a heavy impact on the vegetation which gets worse and worse as their numbers continue to rise.

I then went up to the Lapwing hide, which, as it turned out, was where the action really was. On the way I had been impressed by 2 hobby swooping overhead, but from the hide there were five and they were coming very close to the hide, giving a fantastic display, the best I had seen in years.

I was also interested to see we still have 3 wigeon and a few teal, although I could find no sign of yesterday’s splendid drake garganey. There was a smart red bar-tailed godwit on the grass and a whimbrel flew in from the south, so there was a good tally of waders about today. May is always an exciting month and there may yet be more interesting visitors, perhaps a black tern or two?

Three in One

Bird News: Ibsley Waterdunlin 1, swift 200+, house martin 400+.

It might have been Thursday and so , as many readers may know, should have been fine for the regular volunteer task, but it was not, in fact it rained all day. The poor weather had forced lots of house martin and swift to feed low over Ibsley Water and also probably caused a late migrating dunlin to drop in. It also meant that it was very difficult to look at or for birds, even from the hides, due to stong winds and driving rain.

I had no expectation of finding much in the moth trap, in fact there were fewer than twenty moths and no single species with more than three individuals. However, there were 3 lunar yellow underwings! As many as had ever been recorded at Blashford before over six years and more of trapping in a single night. This nationally scarce species was as common as any in the trap matched only by white ermine and treble lines. Either it is having an exceptional season or it loves flying in bad weather.

Despite the weather ten volunteers turned out and we covered the upper section of the Dockens Water clearing Himalayan balsam, collecting rubbish and collecting a bit of seed from some of the wild daffodils. The balsam is an invasive alien plant which we have been working to control for many years, the good news is that we do seem to be making good headway and there were very few plants to be found. Rubbish was also in quite small amounts, possibly because the heavy rain we have had has washed it further down stream. We found some daffodil seed, although many seed heads had seemingly been eaten and were missing from the top of the stems. Wild daffodils are quiet common on the reserve where the old woodland floor level has not been disturbed and mainly propagate themselves as the bulbs grow and divide, but they do set seed and these will grow to produce bulbs over  a few years. We were collecting some seed to try to see if we can encourage a native flora in an area of woodland where it has been shaded out by a hundred years of dense rhododendron cover. The native flora occurs right up to the edge of the cleared area but within it there are only species that have grown from the seed bank, mainly foxgloves.

The wind and rain did result in problems late in the day with a large tree down on the path between Ivy North hide and Woodland hide, the fallen tree was cleared but a second stem remains dangerous and the path has had to be closed until the wind drops enough to allow it to be felled safely. I suspect there could well be other problems today as the wind has stayed high all night and is still gusting to gale force.